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Religious delusion


A religious delusion is any delusion involving religious themes or subject matter. Though a small minority of psychologists have characterized all or nearly all religion as delusion, others focus solely on a denial of any spiritual cause of symptoms exhibited by a patient and look for other answers relating to a chemical imbalance in the brain, although there is actually no evidence of pathology in any psychiatric illness which means a diagnosis is made purely on opinions of professionals based on symptoms the person exhibits.


Individuals experiencing religious delusions are preoccupied with religious subjects that are not within the expected beliefs for an individual's background, including culture, education, and known experiences of religion. These preoccupations are incongruous with the mood of the subject. Falling within the definition also are delusions arising in psychotic depression; however, these must present within a major depressive episode and be congruous with mood.

Researchers in a 2000 study found religious delusions to be unrelated to any specific set of diagnostic criteria, but correlated with demographic criteria, primarily age. In a comparative study sampling 313 patients, those with religious delusion were found to be aged older, and had been placed on a drug regime or started a treatment programme at an earlier stage. In the context of presentation, their global functioning was found to be worse than another group of patients without religious delusions. The first group also scored higher on the Scale for the Assessment of Positive Symptoms (SAPS), had a greater total on the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS), and were treated with a higher mean number of neuroleptic medications of differing types during their hospitalization.

Religious delusion was found in 2007 to strongly correlate with "temporolimbic overactivity". This is a condition where irregularities in the brain's limbic system may present as symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

In a 2010 study, Swiss psychiatrists found religious delusions with themes of spiritual persecution by malevolent spirit-entities, control exerted over the person by spirit-entities, delusional experience of sin and guilt, or delusions of grandeur.

Religious delusions have generally been found to be less stressful than other types of delusion. A study found adherents to new religious movements to have similar delusionary cognition, as rated by the Delusions Inventory, to a psychotic group, although the former reported feeling less distressed by their experiences than the latter.


Behaviours out of the ordinary were traditionally viewed as demonic possession. These episodes, although entirely disavowed by modern psychiatry, are evaluated by clinicians only such that they fall within the safety of a treatment programme.

Earlier propositions that religious shamans were motivated by delusions and that their behaviour resembled that of patients with schizophrenia were found to be incorrect.

In a 1937 essay, Sigmund Freud stated that he considered believing in a single god to be a delusion, thus extending his 1907 comment that religion is the indication of obsessional neurosis. His thoughts defining "delusion" perhaps crystallized from the notion of the religion formulations of the common man ("circa" 1927) as "patently infantile, foreign to reality"; around the same year he also stated that religion "comprises a system of wishful illusions together with a disavowal of reality, such as we find in an isolated form nowhere else but amentia, in a state of blissful hallucinatory confusion".


Examples from a 295-subject study in Lithuania showed that the most common religious delusions were being a saint (in women) and being God (in men).

In one study of 193 people who had previously been admitted to hospital and subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia, 24% were found to have religious delusions.

A 1999 study identified that religious delusions were often present or expressed in persons with forensic committal to a psychiatric unit.

Clinical examples | Biblical

A 2012 paper suggested that, when compared with experiences today, psychiatric conditions associated with psychotic spectrum symptoms may be possible explanations for some revelatory driven experiences and activities such as those of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Saint Paul. However, the paper admits that the study was not aimed to deny supernatural elements, nor was it conclusive on whether their experiences were delusional in part or not at all.

Clinical examples | Historical

A religious experience of communication from heavenly or divine beings could be interpreted as a test of faith. An example of such is Joan of Arc, "La Pucelle d'Orléans", who rallied French forces late in the Hundred Years' War.

Daniel Paul Schreber is an example of a supposed religious delusion occurring in a developed condition of psychosis. Schreber was a successful and highly respected German judge until middle age, when he came to believe that God was turning him into a woman. Two of his three illnesses (1884–1885 and 1893–1902) are described in his book "Memoirs of My Nervous Illness" (original German title "Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken"), which became an influential book in the history of psychiatry and psychoanalysis thanks to its interpretation by Sigmund Freud.

Clinical examples | Auditory hallucination and crime

An individual may hear communication from heavenly or divine beings compelling one to commit acts of violence. Some cite the case of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham, who was commanded by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. However, when Abraham was prepared to act on it, God informed him that this was only a test of faith and forbade any human sacrifice.

In contemporary times persons judged to have experienced auditory hallucination include those who hearing voices instructing or motivating them to commit violent acts. These auditory experiences are classified by psychiatry as command hallucination. Persons acting to commit murder are reported as hearing voices of religious beings such as God, angels, or the Devil.

Within the anti-psychiatric community, Professor Thomas Szasz critiques the concept of religious auditory hallucination: those who hear the voice of God talking to them are experiencing schizophrenia, while those who talk to God but hear no response are simply praying.